Context is King

As any successful writer knows – especially like me, with an internet background – ‘content is king.’ But as a music lover (and a historian, by training – that’s another story), I’d like to suggest, rather, that context is king. That is, if – like me – you like your music to expand your horizons rather than confirm a blinkered safe zone, where you might only go to concerts with works you already know, and never try anything new.

My musical modus operandi is rather simple. Every new work I hear opens up an infinite number of future exploratory possibilities. I often find a CD of a composer or works I don’t know and immediately go online and find something that has been inspired by that first CD purchase. One recent case in point. I found a disc (actually in a local charity shop) of music by Bernd Alois Zimmerman, recently recorded and released on the Capriccio label by Karl- Heinz Steffens and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. It turns out to be the first of an ongoing series entitled Modern Times – and I had ordered their second disc with music by Luigi Dallapiccola within minutes of getting home and online. Two more discs have recently come out, devoted to Henri Duttileux and Ginastera (in readiness for his centenary next year). They represent a great choice of rare repertoire and it’s a series I’ll be following.

But back to context; as you might expect a couple of recent examples spring to mind: one operatic, one dramatic. I can start with a simple question – what makes Mozart and Shakespeare the greats that they are? We’re always told that they are great, and we seem happy to accept that, but how can we really tell? I recently saw what was probably the UK première production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio, courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera. It was written just before Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro - indeed they were commissioned at the same time – but the most intriguing comparison is with Così fan tutte, because both focus on two couples whose love for each other are put through the hoops before ending happily ever after. Salieri and his librettist Giovanni Battista Casti take two sisters, one sporty the other bookish, who each have lovers of similar hue. But when the girls pass through the cave of the title, belonging to the magician Trofonio, which can change anyone who goes into it to the complete opposite, a merry hell of consternation and confusion breaks loose.

It’s not too far of a step to imagine Mozart and Da Ponte (with whom Salieri had found it impossible to work) looking at La grotta di Trofonio and making a pact to outdo it on its own terms. But in so doing, Mozart was intrigued enough by Salieri’s arias and ensembles to emulate his musical innovations. Knowing La grotta di Trofonio doesn’t demean Così fan tutte. Rather – to me at any rate – it enhances it, because we can see Mozart wasn’t working in a vacuum. He was raising his game against the competition. It tells us more about Vienna, Salieri and Mozart and makes Così all the richer for it.

My Shakespearean example comes from just reading James Shapiro’s new book, 1606 – William Shakespeare and the Year of King Lear. In it he argues – plausibly – that Shakespeare’s King Lear was written in response to an earlier play called King Lier (in the same way as earlier he had used other plays on Richard III, Henry V and Hamlet as a springboard to write his own plays, vastly improving the original source material in so doing). He could see more dramatic possibilities and enhanced almost every aspect of the play, but it makes his genius more tangible than if he’d just thought the story up on the spot.

More anon.

Nick Breckenfield

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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